Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica was a staple of camp, late-’70s television. led by Dirk Benedict and Lorne Greene, it showcased the weekly capers of a group of space jockeys on the run from boxy metal enemies, the Cylons. Several aborted attempts to resurrect the series dotted the ’90s, first by original series star Richard Hatch and later Bryan Singer and Tom De Santo, whose iteration got as far as pre-production before being scrapped.
It wasn’t until Star Trek veteran Ron D. Moore was approached in 2002 that a very different take on Battlestar emerged. Given the greenlight for a three-hour mini-series on the Sci-Fi channel, Moore took the hammy space opera and reforged it as a gritty account of the cost of war. Here we present the history of TV’s most audacious sci-fi saga, as recounted by its creator, his Commander, Edward James Olmos, and the show’s very different take on a Cylon, Tricia Helfer.
Ron D. Moore (Showrunner): When I was working on Star Trek, I was constantly thinking about darker tales your could tell, a different kind of science fiction war story. When Universal said they wanted to do another Battlestar, I tracked down the original series pilot, and I was surprised by my reaction.
Watching the Cylons destroy the colonies at that moment, when the Twin Towers site was still smouldering, I realised this was part of the world I was living in. I was re-living the 9/11 experience and I realised that if we did this now, it would carry all that with it for the audience. We could examine that moment through a science fiction prism.
Edward James Olmos (Commander William Adama): They asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. I said no. After being in Blade Runner, which was such an extraordinary experience, I didn’t really want to touch that world again. But Ron talked about the way that the world would materialise and it was different from anything that had been seen before.
I told them as long as it doesn’t have any creatures from the black lagoon or four-eyed aliens from outer space then I would be more than willing. I had them write in my contract that if I saw one alien creature I’d be off the show.
Moore: Very early on we had to ask, “What are we gonna do about the Cylons?” We couldn’t go for any version of guys in suits. CG Cylons were more practical but we couldn’t do a whole show with them. But then someone said, “Well, they could look like people.”
Maybe they believe in God. Maybe there’s a sense of theology and they believe they’re going back towards a form that God had intended. It was a wacky, weird idea and we just kind of liked it. I didn’t want to define the Cylons too much at that point, so for Number Six I just wrote a cryptic line that I thought would get me off the hook for a while.
Tricia Helfer (Number Six): “The machine as woman.” That was the only note about my character. In one way, that’s sort of freeing. But I had quit modelling the year before and just moved out to Los Angeles and for a new actor that’s a bit frightening — a little guidance would have been nice. The other characters all had three, four page back stories and I had one line!
Very early on we had to ask, “What are we gonna do about the Cylons?”
Moore: The human characters had to be fully fleshed out. They were going to be flawed human beings. The Galactica was not the Enterprise: it was a forgotten ship, an old ship. And the people that manned it were not the best in the fleet, they were the people that just happened to survive.
Olmos: We had destroyed everyone, except for the ragtag 55 ships that were left out in the wilderness of space. Adama was not prepared for the responsibility of being head of the military of all humanity. They had no idea where I was going to take him. At the time even I didn’t know exactly how far I was gonna go. But he became an alcoholic, he became addicted to pills. He faltered. He lost it. And then he came back. I’d never seen that done in a hero. Shatner or any of these guys never got the opportunity to make him so vulnerable. I was slobbering and crying in my own pee!
Moore: The biggest question is what you do with Apollo and Starbuck. What do I do with the straight arrow, good pilot and his best friend, the roguish, cigar-smoking gambler who chases women? And I just thought, well, what if I made Starbuck a girl? What if she’s the rogue? What if she gets into fights? What if she’s a gambler? What if she’s more damaged?
I wanted it to feel authentic. I wanted people to tune into the show and feel for a moment like they might have drifted into a History Channel documentary of an aircraft carrier. I wanted the design to de-emphasise the sci-fi of it all, to make it accessible. The closer I could bring the audience to the people in it, the more likely they were to go with us on this crazy ride.
Beyond The Red Line
The miniseries was the highest-rated show on Sci-Fi in 2003, and was promptly picked up. However, little could have prepared either network or viewers for how the show began. With a strung-out, sleep-deprived crew and a deliberate friendly fire attack against a civilian transport, ‘33’ was a gruelling episode that perfectly set the tone for Moore’s vision of what the series should be.
Moore: The higher ups at the network flipped out about how dark it was. They were like, “What are you doing? How did you guys let this happen? We can’t broadcast this!”
Olmos: Every 33 minutes they would be fighting for their lives. When the episode starts, they’ve been doing that for five days! So I decided to do it for real. I stayed up for a couple of days and I was feeling terrible. My body ached, my stomach hurt. We all went there, the whole cast. It was just beautiful.
Moore: The network really, really, really hated the idea that we were gonna blow up the Olympic Carrier. We shot people in the seats looking out the window when Apollo flies down the side of the ship. They made us take them out, but I put little moving shadows in to imply that there were people there. They grudgingly went with it.
They had pushed back at various times in the mini-series as well. One network executive at Sci-Fi told me flat out, “There is no way you are going to blow up this girl and her teddy bear with a nuke. That’s not gonna be on television!” And I said, “We’ll see.”
Helfer: I was really nervous about the scene where Six snaps the baby’s neck. Because it’s really hard to come back from that! I talked about making it more of a mercy killing, where she knew the bombs were gonna go off shortly and decided to end the baby’s life in a quick, painless way. They almost didn’t put it in.
Moore: The mini-series generated one of the lowest ratings from test audiences they’d ever had on a show. They hated every character and they especially hated the neck-snapping scene. So they tried to get us to take that out. We wouldn’t. Then there were arguments about how many people had to die. They worried about the ‘tonnage’ of the grief, the ‘tonnage’ of death. I’m like, “Well, 50 billion people died. It’s hard to oversell the tonnage, guys. This is an apocalypse!”
The mini-series generated one of the lowest ratings from test audiences they’d ever had on a show.
Olmos: I don’t think the network knew what was happening. They got scared. It was so dark and it was getting darker and they wanted to lighten it up, so they told us that they wanted a comedy. They wanted humour. I said, “Are you kidding me? What are you talking about?”
Moore: I kept getting these notes. “Can’t they have a birthday party? Or go have a basketball game on one of the ships or something? Why can’t they just lighten up?” And I said, “Because their entire civilisation was just wiped out!” So I rewrote the beginning of an episode (‘Act of Contrition’) to have a celebration with Flattop coming in for his 1000th landing. Then I killed all the pilots in an explosion. I got a call from the network saying, “Okay, we get it. We’ll never ask you for birthday parties again.”
Helfer: There were comedy elements, though, often from the fact that nobody could see Six except Baltar. I credit James for a lot of the scenes we have together, because he really played with the confusion that comes with having a person talking to you in your head. But when we were shooting, I really didn’t know what Six was. To some extent I still don’t really know! If only Baltar can see me, am I a chip in his head? A brain tumour? Is he just going crazy?
Moore: I liked the idea that she was a projection of his subconscious. I knew that she was probably not going to be a chip in his head. But as the religious aspects of the show grew more important, it felt more and more like she should be some manifestation of that.
Battlestar was the oddball show in Sci- Fi’s otherwise sunny portfolio. Gritty and frequently tough to watch, it dealt with rape, torture, war crimes and even human suicide bombers (Moore’s take on the Iraq war and subsequent occupation). Middling ratings meant the network reluctantly renewed the show each year but Moore could see the writing on the wall. He began bringing together the major storylines, from Galactica’s search for Earth, to the identities of the last Cylons: the ‘Final Five’.
Moore: I thought there was an interesting symmetry just between the 12 colonies and the 12 models. I didn’t know what the relationship was at that point, but I decided to limit it and say there’s 12. But when Baltar goes aboard the Cylon Basestar, we had to face the reality that, wouldn’t he just see all 12 models? I was trying to come up with justifications and it just occurred to me that we just embrace the idea that okay, there’s five left and they’re special. All the way through the show, everyone in the cast is saying, “Am I a Cylon?” It was like a guessing game.
Olmos: Everybody was afraid of that. And the people who were chosen were pissed. Especially the X.O. [Michael Hogan] He was livid. He said, “I’m sorry, you guys. I can’t do this. I am not a Cylon!” He just couldn’t take it.
Moore: When we were working on ‘Maelstrom’, Starbuck went all the way down into that planet atmosphere and they think she’s dead, but she’s not. But it was like, “Really? Again?” So I said, “What if we really killed her?” And then it was how long would we keep her dead? And how many episodes could we really fool the audience into believing that we meant it?
Helfer: We actually all thought that Starbuck had died. They took her off the credits! Katee [Sackhoff] had been told not to say anything, she had her last day on the set and people were crying.
Olmos: It was a surprise and it was sad and it was just horrendous. In the scene where I find out, I smashed a model ship that was on loan to the show and was worth a lot of money. I said to them, “Why did you put this model in front of me? What did you expect to happen?”
Helfer: Eddie got wind of the fact that she was coming back and he was very mad, actually. We all stumbled into the production offices and Eddie said, “How could you do this to us?” They really did play it off like Starbuck had died.
Moore: Once we had revealed four of the Final Five Cylons and once we had Starbuck come back and say, “I know the where Earth is.” It felt like we were in the end game of the show. I didn’t want to be canceled, I wanted to end it on my terms. The network wanted shows that were more fun, they didn’t want dark. So when I said, “let’s end it.” It wasn’t like they jumped up and down for joy, but they didn’t stop us either.
Finales are divisive and controversial by their nature. But it was surprising just how divisive it was.
Helfer: Ron said from the very beginning that he saw this as a five year story. So I guess we were kind of expecting it. Even though it’s four seasons, we’d been filming for five years.
Moore: It was hard because now we have these threads we’ve woven through the tapestry, which we have to bring together in a satisfying way. We had a big master list of all the things we wanted to address, and if there were things that we didn’t address by the end, it was because we made a conscious choice not to.
Helfer: Imaginary Six being a sort of angel solidified what I was leaning towards, as opposed to there being a more scientific explanation. It took seeing the last script to understand how it came together. James and I had discussed it as there was a point where he was not happy that he had Imaginary Baltar as well. It got confusing for a while there.
Moore: Finales are divisive and controversial by their nature. But it was surprising just how divisive it was. I was very proud of the finale. I still am. It concludes everything that was set up in the show, answers the big questions and deals with the major issues. I love the fact that they got to Earth and we sent them off the way we did.
Olmos: I liked the finale, but I thought it was extremely difficult to take. No matter how you did it, you could never tie everything off in a big bow. Ron did as much as he could in trying to bring the storytelling full circle. But you had to suspend reality.
Moore: Starbuck was the one thing I figured no one was gonna be satisfied with. We wrestled with that six different ways. There just wasn’t a satisfying answer. If you say she’s an angel, that’s sort of like, “Really? That’s it?” You know, is she a Cylon? You’re not really interested in that either. Believe me, we tried many different versions and it just seemed like the best version was to be ambiguous, even knowing that there was a chunk of the audience that wasn’t gonna like it.
Helfer: Looking back in retrospect, could we have done a few more years still keeping it fresh? I think so. It would have been nice to maybe have another season or two. But there is a lot to be said for series that do keep it shorter, as opposed to continuing until they run out of steam.
Olmos: Steven Bochco gave us a really strong understanding of storytelling in the late ’70s with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. Just like Desi Arnaz gave us the use of three cameras back in the 1950s. Well, Battlestar gave us an understanding of story, character and defining the reality of the moment.
This show tapped into the world we were living in in such a way that in 2009, the United Nations called us up and asked us to come to do a conference on the issues from the show. I’ve never heard any television show being invited to speak to the United Nations!
Moore: The show’s legacy for me is just one of enormous pride. I can say I was part of Battlestar Galactica, and I love doing that. I love just saying I was one of the people involved with that show. We did something that’s hard to top.
Olmos: Ron surpassed everyone. Whether they wanna accept that or not, there’s never been a show that’s used thematic, episodic TV like we did with this show. 100 years from today, you’re gonna be able to watch this show and it’s not going to be dated. I think the legacy of Battlestar will be that that it will stand the test of time.
It was a combination of truth and the reality of what people were going through right at that precise moment in time. I’ll never do another show like it. I don’t think they’ll ever be another show like it.
So say we all…